Erin Moriarty Remembers Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne, one of the most prolific crime journalists of the last three decades, passed away on Aug 26, 2009. He was famous for covering the famous, most often when they had gotten into terrible trouble. At Crimesider, we are privileged to present the personal stories of two people that knew him well: one a fellow journalist and the other his niece.

This story is contributed by Erin Moriarty, a correspondent at 48 Hours Mystery

NEW YORK (CBS) I last saw Dominick Dunne in a New York hospital. I walked into his room with some trepidation; after all, he was being treated for bladder cancer and I had heard ominous rumors about his ill health.

I should not have worried.

Dominick was, indeed, thin and a little pale, but as soon as he saw me, he launched into a colorful and lively discussion about a case we had both followed for years. Cancer be damned, nothing was going to get in the way of a good story!

For nearly an hour, Dominick came up with details that I had long forgotten. What a memory and what an ear for a great anecdote he had, even at 83 years old!

I had come to the hospital (I thought) to cheer an old friend. I was the one who left energized and reminded once again why he was such a good reporter: Dominick was so genuinely interested in what others had to say that they would inevitably confide in him wonderful nuggets of information.

I first met him in 1986, shortly after moving to New York City to work for CBS News. I was working on a story dealing with what is often called the "blame the victim" legal defense. Looking for interviews, someone suggested I track down the writer Dominick Dunne.

Dominick knew the concept only too well. It was the same defense a man by the name of John Sweeny used in his trial for the strangling death of his girlfriend. That girlfriend was Dominick's 22-year old daughter, Dominique.

(AP Photo/Doug Healy)
Photo: Author Dominick Dunne at his Hadlyme, Conn., home in 2005.

Her father told me how painful it had been to sit through the trial helplessly while Sweeny described Dominique in highly unflattering and unfair terms, creating sympathy among jurors. Sweeny was ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served less than three years in prison.

Dominick never got over either his daughter's death or how her reputation was smeared during the trial. I think the experience colored the way he saw every trial he covered after that time which involved a female victim.

I later spent a lot of time with Dominick in Los Angeles in the mid-90's when we were both covering O.J. Simpson's trial. Dominick was a ubiquitous presence around the courthouse and never seemed to be off the clock. He went to countless dinner parties, talking to everyone.

His vigilance in covering the case yielded amazing stories like the time he was in the bathroom with Barry Scheck, the well-known D.N.A expert lawyer who was working on Simpson's defense.

According to Dominick, the two men stood at urinals when suddenly Barry turned to him in anguish and groaned that he was "haunted" by the sight of the family of Ron Goldman, one of the victims. Barry, Dominick told me, seemed apologetic about defending Simpson.

I was shocked that Barry would be so indiscreet with Dominick and later Barry denied he ever said such a thing. However, I always believed Dominick. He didn't make up facts. He didn't have to. People just felt compelled to talk to him and lived to regret it if the story appeared in Vanity Fair.

Dominick knew how to pull in readers. There was drama in every column. I still remember his description of finally meeting Lily Safra, the wife of the late Edmond Safra.

Edmond Safra was killed in a fire in his apartment in Monaco, a fire blamed on his American nurse, Ted Maher. Dominick and I both covered Maher's trial in Monaco and I saw Mrs. Safra at the court every day. Still, it is Dominick's description in Vanity Fair coming face to face with Mrs. Safra at a New York restaurant that remains in my memory:

"The Zilkhas' closest friends for years had been Edmond and Lily Safra. Then I found myself looking directly into the face of the elusive Lily Safra, who had been seated directly behind me for two hours, at the same time that I was talking about her at my table. We recognized each other. I could see it on her face. I could feel it on mine. She bowed her head slightly in a very elegant manner, more of a European gesture than an American one. I rose to my feet and put out my hand. "Good evening, Mrs. Safra," I said.

She gave me her hand, replying, "Good evening, Mr. Dunne."

She was all in black. With her left hand she tossed her shawl over her right shoulder and walked on to join the Zilkhas at the door. They looked so privileged"

Dominick was a bold-faced name himself and dressed like one (I once went with him to pick up several custom fitted shirts at the Turnbull and Asser store in Manhattan), but he always tried to maintain his distance as a social observer. And although he was at the age when he was beyond caring what people thought of him, Dominick was still sensitive to perceived slights.

Through the years, I kept a subscription to Vanity Fair - in large part because of his entertaining columns - but he once expressed his concern that the editor, Graydon Carter, did not appreciate his work. He was hurt that he had been in the hospital for days before Carter sent him flowers.

I left the hospital that day promising to get together soon with Dominick for lunch. We never did have that date and I regret that deeply today. I don't think I will ever enjoy discussing a case with anyone as much as I loved talking to Dominick. He was a reporter's reporter. I miss him already.

Erin Moriarty is an award-winning correspondent for CBS News and has been with 48 Hours since 1990. Drawing on her training as an attorney, she has examined some of the most important issues of the day, including DNA testing in death-row cases, the abortion controversy and battered women's syndrome. She covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine High School shootings and the 9/11 investigation overseas. Moriarty has won nine national Emmy Awards and a 2001 Press Club Award, among others.
  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"